The Leadership Choice

Copyright 2006 William Frank Diedrich

Every home and every organization has structure. Structure is the invisible field that influences behavior. Systems expert Peter Senge of M.I.T. defines structure as “choices made over time.” Choices made over time becomes the “way we do things”. The way we do things comes from the way we think–our beliefs, assumptions, and perceptions. Every relationship and every organization that you are a part of has a structure. You influence that structure by the choices you make. Structure is what compels people to act in certain ways.

For example, I went to a book store (Schuler’s Books and Music) and asked about a certain book. The sales associate looked it up, led me to it, took it off the shelf, and handed it to me. All of this was done with cheerfulness and a desire to help me. I know that if I go into that store and ask for a book, I will get the same response. That’s structure. All the associates treat customers that way. Why is that? It is because leadership has communicated and modeled that behavior consistently. Leaders consistently send a message as to how to treat customers.

In another example, I decided to visit a chain restaurant called Steak and Shake. I just wanted a chocolate shake to take out. I walked in and stood at the counter. Four people who work there saw me but did not acknowledge my presence. The waitress was pouring coffee but ignored me. There were only three tables with customers. That was a leadership problem. The leaders in this restaurant had not created a clear structure. Ignoring customers was acceptable. Maybe the waitress didn’t want to deal with a take out order. Maybe the two people in the grill said to themselves : “Hey, greeting that guy is the waitress’ job.” Maybe she would have come over eventually, but I noticed she wasn’t very busy. The place felt “dead” so I left.

If poor performance, lack of cooperation, or lack of responsiveness is happening in your organization it’s because it is acceptable. This is not an article about being tough on your employees. It is an article about being honest with yourself. Whether you are the leader in an organization, a family, a church, or a committee, there is no “them”. Your choices set a tone. What you say and what you don’t say send a message.

A leader is an architect. Your mind including your assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions, is your design tool. The behavioral choices you make each day come from the way you think. These choices, combined with the choices of others, become “the way we do things.” Therefore, organizational change and growth do not happen at the level of behavior, but at the level of thought. Behavior originates in thought. Emotion is your body’s response to thought. Emotion is the driving force behind all choices. Negative or positive, excited or bored, emotion is the energy of a group of people. Leaders contribute to the energy of the group via the way they feel. The energy at Schuler’s was caring, helpful, and enthusiastic. The energy at Steak and Shake was apathetic and slow moving. If you are going to be an excellent leader/architect, you need to understand how you think and how your thinking makes you feel.

A great many people see themselves as victims. They are either expecting others to do something to them, or expecting others to do something for them. If you are expecting others to do something to you, you spend time shoring up your defenses, planning your counter attacks, planning your preemptive attacks, or avoiding certain people altogether. If you are waiting for others to do something for you, you are helpless and powerless until someone takes care of you. If you are not being cared for or treated in the way you think you should be, then you feel under appreciated, or mistreated, resentful, or the victim of selfish people.

If you are a leader and you think like a victim, your thoughts and emotions, and their resulting choices will serve to create a structure that encourages confusion and conflict. For example, the manager who avoids talking to the underperforming employee creates a structure that encourages poor performance. The message sent, even though it isn’t intended, is: “Your performance is acceptable to me.” The manager who constantly criticizes someone sends the message: “I expect you to do poorly.” Whatever your opinion of someone else may be, that becomes your vision for them. These thoughts will generate emotions and behaviors that will serve to promote the behaviors you say you don’t want.

Leaders who are self aware recognize when they feel victimized or uncomfortable. They recognize that their discomfort and their behaviors are out of alignment with their vision and with who they are as a person. This acknowledgment and recognition must be nonjudgmental. That is, you don’t condemn yourself for how you feel. You accept it and clarify who you are, what you want, and the vision for your organization. You determine what your next steps will be in order to come into alignment with your intentions. You determine what actions will best serve the highest good for all concerned. As humans, we are always susceptible to feeling like victims. Excellent leaders move themselves out of the neighborhood of victimhood and into the high-rise of personal responsibility.

To summarize, the thoughts, emotions and choices of leaders become the structure of an organization. As structure is reinforced, it influences behavior. The place to begin growth or correction is within yourself. Your shift in thinking radiates outward and influences the structure. Leadership is not about getting people to do things your way. Leadership is influence. Whatever thoughts and emotions you are bringing to the table–that is your influence. This is true at your place of work, in your home, in your spiritual community, and in any other group in which you are involved. Choosing to shift your thinking away from victimhood is not easy. It’s easier to be a victim. Your intention and willingness will move you forward. Your ability to reflect honestly on your own contribution to your conditions and to the conditions of your organization will serve you well. Your commitment to who you are, to the well-being of others, and to the vision of the organization will define you as a great leader. Leadership is a choice that is made moment by moment. Leadership is a practice and this is how you practice it.